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Chicagoist Grills: Graze Executive Chef Bob Zrenner

By Laura Oppenheimer in Food on Feb 22, 2007 4:30PM

Chef Bob Zrenner is on a mission. The executive chef of recently opened Graze in River North wants to get people to go out of their comfort zone to try something new. A self-confessed iceberg lettuce-eating traditional Midwesterner, Zrenner is familiar with lackluster cuisine. With Graze, Zrenner hopes to introduce diners to — or perhaps challenge them to try — a variety of contemporary American flavors and dishes through his innovative small plates menu.

2007_2_zrenner.jpgWhen we stopped by the restaurant on 35 W. Ontario St. last week, we were somewhat shocked by the decor, which was designed by Rocco Laudizio. Large sunflowers are painted on the walls, grass blades cover the bottom half of the windows and little glass butterflies are suspended from the ceiling. Laudzio is more known for designing nightclubs, and we could see that from his work in Graze.

Decor aside, we were charmed by Zrenner, whose resume includes stints at Tru and North Pond Cafe; he was gracious, down-to-earth and lacked any sort of bravado about what he was trying to do with the restaurant. The menu too was charming with items like panko-crusted artichoke hearts, seared sea scallops with parsnip puree and blood orange reduction, and braised oxtail and celery room tortellini.

Chicagoist: What is the philosophy behind Graze?

Bob Zrenner: Graze is a small plate restaurant, which is a new trend. What degustations were in the nineties, I think small plates [are now]. Small plates bring that high level of cuisine to people on a much more affordable level. Our portions might be small, but two or three of our plates gives you three times the variety of a $30 entrée. This way, you aren’t committed to one thing, you still have a decent meal, but you can try a little more....

At Graze we promote a variety of American small plates. So many flavors have come into our culture, which gives us a chance to embrace everyone’s cultures. Every ingredient is available, why shouldn’t we try it? That’s my philosophy as I approach the menu.

C: What is your favorite dish on the menu?

BZ: Asking what your favorite dish is like asking a parent which child is their favorite. Everything on the menu I’m proud of. We have plates here that will help a picky eater, like the chicken breast entree. For myself I would pick the grilled pork loin with curried acorn squash coulis or the duck ... because I love duck.

C: Will the menu change seasonally?

BZ: Yes, there will be seasonal changes. The changes will be fluid. We don’t want to eat braised oxtail in July. There will be pumpkin for fall, tomatoes in the summer. In the spring you can get green garlic, ramps and fresh radish. How well thought out seasonally the menu is ... it just works with what is in season.

C: What’s the story with the decor?

BZ: The decor is mean to be reminiscent of a pasture, to allow people to graze. This is barn wood (gesturing to the wood-paneled walls). The colors fit me. My winter coat matches the greens and the oranges. I don’t think it’s over the top.

If you look at dining rooms of the 1980s and before, they were very posh. These gave way to the minimalist interiors of Blackbird and Tru of the nineties. It's about the whole experience at Graze. Dining out is once again an event.

C: What’s your take on the molecular gastronomy movement?

BZ: At this moment I don’t have a lot of interest. You need your pioneers. I appreciate them doing it so I don’t have to. I’m an old-fashioned guy. Just a stove, a spark and a pan is all I need. But, without dreamers we get stagnant.

C: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be?

BZ: Miserable. I’ve always liked cooking. I’ve been paid to be cook since I was 16. I started off in the drive in.... I’ve been doing this for 17 years, and I haven’t lost the passion yet.